Feeding and Enjoying Your Baby!
Feeding and Enjoying Your Baby!
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When breastfeeding is going well, all members of the family have a positive relationship with their newest member, and each has an important role in bonding and caretaking. Both parents feel connected to each other and to their baby, and they know their role is essential in the baby’s feeding and soothing. Likewise, the baby experiences that their need for milk and comfort will always be met; and as they grow into eating solids, saying words, and toddling around, they learn that there are also different ways to be comforted and fed, and that their relationships with their family members are unique and special.
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Parents’ mental health, happiness, and relationship with their babies are actually very important to the baby’s optimal health and development—even more so than feeding method—and developing a positive environment for feeding and infant care is truly an investment in family harmony, both now and in the future.
Breastfeeding can be hard, especially in the first 4–6 weeks. Though most mothers enjoy it after that, not every mother does. Your feelings and needs are just as important as your baby’s. The saying about putting your own oxygen mask on first is very true—you have to be ok in order to take care of your baby—and you deserve to feel good as a human being. If you are experiencing problems, you may consider the saying “don't quit on your worst day,” get help, and see if breastfeeding gets better. Many problems can be solved—some immediately, and some with work, time, patience, and sometimes unrelenting stubbornness! Or you may conclude that you gave it your all, but it’s not for you, and that’s ok.
This is a saying for a reason! Your happiness matters.
Sometimes, a different approach to breastfeeding may be needed to allow it to be more enjoyable and a bonding experience for you and your baby. Successful breastfeeding is a spectrum, from exclusive breastfeeding (at the breast or by pumping) to combination feeding to nursing purely for comfort. Here are some unique ways you can successfully breastfeed.
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Mom’s Mental Health
Some mothers find that breastfeeding is good for their mental health, but this is not universal, and there is nothing wrong with you if you don’t. If you are experiencing negative emotions, it may be useful to talk with your doctor or a mental health professional to evaluate you for postpartum depression or anxiety (PPD/A). Here is a screening tool for PPD as a place to start.
Many mental health and breastfeeding issues can be solved without an unwanted interruption of breastfeeding, and many medications are compatible according to experts. It’s important to let your care providers know if breastfeeding means a lot to you, and that you need them to work with you on that. If they don’t know, they may think that suggesting you stop breastfeeding will take pressure off you.
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However, stopping abruptly can be physically hard on you and adds a whole new set of things to learn from scratch. For mothers who were enjoying breastfeeding and wanting to continue, stopping can disrupt a special feeling of closeness with their baby, and it takes away a sense of agency and self-esteem in making parenting decisions.
Psychiatrists usually want to support your desire to breastfeed if they know how you feel, and they will almost always be willing to explore appropriate medications with you. Doctors and therapists usually allow babies in sessions, or telehealth can be used.
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There are many mental health and other conditions (such as epilepsy) that can be exacerbated by insufficient quantity or quality of sleep. Feeding plans should address this important need. In some cases a mother might feel that stopping breastfeeding is best for her mental health. Your feeding decisions should always be supported, and especially so if your mental health is at stake.
Dads and Partners
Fathers often wonder what their role is in early feeding and caretaking when the mother is breastfeeding. Some fathers feel pride in supporting the breastfeeding relationship and develop ways to bond with their babies that are uniquely theirs. In fact, fathers and partners can be critically important in breastfeeding success. For a mom, knowing that your partner values the work you are doing in feeding your baby feels really good, and taking other baby- and home-care tasks off your plate frees up your brain space for learning what can be a complex process. (I’ll just leave this here.)
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Other fathers may feel left out. They can feel envious of the intimacy between the breastfeeding mother and baby, and concerned that they don’t have what is needed to have an equally intimate relationship in the first months. It is not crazy to feel this way, and there should be no shame put on you if you do. To people who say you “shouldn’t” feel this way, I say that feelings aren’t always logical, but they deserve to be taken seriously anyway. In order to address your feelings, it is important to acknowledge them without judgment and brainstorm ways the family can support your important relationship with your baby.
Some families find that dad doing some bottles of pumped breastmilk works best for their family. Other families find unique ways the father can bond that are not feeding-related. Fathers can research and strategize ways to solve breastfeeding problems that the mother may not have the energy to do. He can take over baby care for a while; this allows both self-care time for mom, and quality dad time with baby. Skin to skin contact is another way for dads to connect with their babies. Babies tend to love dads humming or singing to them during skin to skin time—they may not be able to verbalize their enjoyment, but you will be able to tell!
An added bonus is that being able to say “go relax—I got this” can do wonders for your relationship at a time when there is often intense stress in a new family.
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It is being increasingly recognized that fathers can develop postpartum depression too. Men often manifest depression differently than women, and it is important to recognize and take action if you notice symptoms. The whole family will benefit from a mentally healthy dad, and you deserve to be happy too!
Learning and Balancing Parenting Roles
It is important that both parents have time to develop their parenting skills. Caring for a baby requires so much more than just feeding—babies need parents to read their cues for sleepiness, physical discomfort with full diapers or excessive heat/cold, signs of illness, overstimulation, and many other things. (Parents also need each other to recognize when one person needs a break, some sleep, food or drink, or just to be told they’re doing a good job.)
It can sometimes be difficult for one parent to step back and let the other parent care for their baby in their own way. (Full disclosure, I found this difficult; I wanted everything done the “right way,” meaning my way.) It can be hard to feel like your partner isn’t doing things “correctly,” but for most things, there is no right and wrong—and when there is, part of the parenting learning process is making mistakes and learning from them. (I’m of course talking about low stakes decisions, like how to change a diaper or bathe a baby; safety issues like car seat setup must be done correctly every time.) Your baby will not suffer if it takes your partner a while to learn the best way to soothe them.
While it may be uncomfortable to let go and let another person take over caring for your precious baby, it’s part of valuing your partner’s role and showing your baby that they can rely on both their parents. (And as I learned, it is not always pleasant to be the only one who can soothe the baby or get them to sleep—it can be profoundly exhausting.)
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Every family is unique and has their own values, resources, and stresses. It is ok to discuss with your partner and support system how best to feed your baby, and to make the decision that is right for everyone—the baby, the parents, and anyone else who loves your baby and helps care for them.
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However you feed your baby, know that decisions made in your parenting journey are models for what your family values, and hopefully one of those values is that everyone’s needs are met. Children can then grow up knowing that self-care and self-respect are important, and it is not selfish to prioritize their own needs.
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Feeding a baby can be one of the most enjoyable parts of parenting. There is no one right way to do it, and both flexibility and creativity will help you develop what works for you. By meeting everyone’s needs during your babies’ infancy, you are setting the stage for your family’s happiness for years to come.